HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

There’s a thing that sometimes happens in horror movies. It’s a little thing, but when it’s working I notice. It happens when a parent, upon seeing supernatural horrors in their home, makes like a tree and GETS OUT (sorry, that’s my favorite joke). It happens when a crowd of people see their first glimpse of the giant monster off in the distance and immediately take out their phones. I love it when people in these movies respond to completely outlandish circumstances exactly the way you would expect them to. This is what initially intrigued me about Hex, a novel about a cursed town with a resident ghoul–that is monitored with the use of a cell phone app.

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Hex¬†centers on Black Spring, a small town in upstate New York that has been cursed for hundreds of years, haunted by the undead Katherine van Wyler, or the Black Rock Witch. Katherine can appear anywhere in the town, at any time, but she has never posed much of a threat to the modern citizens. She can’t see or speak to them, after all–her eyes and mouth are sewn shut. As such, the townspeople have gotten as used to her presence as one could, and even have an app that tracks her current location, keeping her hidden from outsiders–and restrained from doing anything unexpected. For while nothing catastrophic has happened, the citizens of Black Spring are cursed all the same; once you become a resident, you cannot ever move away. This makes Black Spring an unusual community, one that is tightly-knit, provincially-minded, and perpetually on alert for the slightest shift in the status quo. So when a group of teenagers, dissatisfied with the insular community they’ve been imprisoned in, grows restless and begins to post about Katherine to the outside world, the slightest changes in routine become sinister portents. What has kept Katherine at bay all of these years–and what will it take to incur her wrath?

First things first: there are things about this book that are not great. The characters never feel quite whole–especially the women. And there are some odd moments of casual sexism from characters we are supposed to like (and that’s even setting aside the sometimes VERY weird treatment of Katherine). Were I reading this book over a longer period of time, these moments might have been frequent and jarring enough to make me put the book down. However, I downloaded Hex because I was in need of a book to marathon, and since the last book I read in a day was Bird Box, I figured another horror title would be a good fix. Hex was no Bird Box, but I wasn’t in it for deep character development (and if I put down every piece of entertainment that contained casual sexism, I would get to watch, like, four movies). I was in it for the spooks, and Hex definitely delivered those. The witch provides great opportunity for really unsettling surprises. It’s creepy enough when she’s operating in her usual pattern (someone with her eyes and mouth sewn shut can just be standing in the corner of any room I walk into?), but it’s when she does something out of the ordinary that she’s the most effective. As creepy as she initially is, you sort of get used to her…until suddenly, she’s doing something new, out of nowhere, in your face.

I also think there’s a metaphoric thread running through Hex. While trying not to spoil things, I think the book wants you to be horrified less by Katherine and more by the bleak, resigned, insular consciousness of the town, and the creepy paradox of having a collective consensus to prioritize saving one’s own skin above all else. It’s a point well made (certainly as relevant as ever), but I have to admit, the ending it tries to drive home falls a little flat. I’m all here for a Monsters-Are-Due-On-Maple-Street style reveal, but I think if¬†Heuvelt was trying to move in that direction, he might have made his witch too freaking creepy for the novel’s own good.

All in all, I think I would still recommend Bird Box more, and I’m getting the sense that it might stay among my favorite horror novels. But for what it’s worth, as scared as I was while I was reading Bird Box, the visceral, heart-pounding factor didn’t really stay with me while I was thinking back on it. Whereas with Hex…well, to give you an idea, as I write this, I’m alone in the house I usually share with three other people, and it’s raining, and something just thumped strangely in the other room, and I am not feeling that great about my life choices right now. I leave your own to you.

THE WALLS AROUND US by Nova Ren Suma

The Walls Around Us is yet another book that I consumed largely over the course of one day (I’ve been particularly lucky about that lately). I actually read the first chapter of this book a little while ago, and I had to put it away to wait for a time when I felt more prepared for it–the first chapter was already intense and foreboding, creating a palpable and disquieting tension. This tension never really let up once I returned (more ready to face it), but instead of repelling me, it pulled me into the mystery, the book urging me to confront it’s darkened corners and claps of thunder. The Walls Around Us was a story that kept me up at night, turning the pages under my covers, but now that I’ve finished, I don’t think it’s ready to let me sleep just yet.

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The Walls Around Us is a young adult novel that hops between the perspectives of two girls. One of them is a prisoner in a juvenile detention facility, and the other is an accomplished ballet dancer on her way to Julliard. As different as their circumstances are, they both seem to see the world through a prism of regret–or rather, a question of regret, and of debts paid and unpaid. The connection between them is in the form of another girl, one who doesn’t get to speak as a narrator but turns the plot on its axis all the same, and as the story unfolds, the reader discovers how the two disparate worlds, the ballet stage and the prison cell, become connected through her. And maybe, it would seem, this connection is becoming more than just a metaphor.

This story surprised me so much, so I don’t want to give too much of the plot away. The mystery unfolds in a unique and unsettling way, and the two narrators accomplish strong work in this story. They are unreliable, but in the way that reality can so often be. The ending of the book seems somehow both impossible and inevitable, leaving you with both a sense of completion and a lot of questions. This is an element that also exists in the characters. Nova Ren Suma has done an incredible job of blurring the lines between villains and heroes, which is especially effective given the seemingly simple juxtaposition created by the two narrators: one a criminal, the other a ballerina. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but whatever it is you’re expecting at any point in the novel, the real answer is so much more complicated.

The Walls Around Us eschews simplicity at every turn. It’s tinged with the paranormal, but in a way that’s grounded and illuminated by real, tangible horror. It’s a mystery that unfolds in a spiral, rather than linearly. It interrogates consequences, responsibility, and justice. It is about a curse, but that curse lives as much in the realm of memory and morality as it does in the realm of the supernatural. It was brilliant. Someday please read it and email me about the ending.

My Month in Middlemarch

When I was an undergraduate, I signed up for an English course that was supposed to spend the entire semester examining only two novels: George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. I had already read and loved a couple of Dickens novels, but I had yet to read Eliot, and spending half a semester relishing every bit of her magnum opus sounded like just the nerd-fantasy I had envisioned when I pictured being an English major. Sadly, not enough of my fellow English majors agreed with me, and the course was cancelled when not enough people signed up. I was heartbroken enough to still think of it wistfully, and it put me off of reading Middlemarch for a while. It was as if knowing that I could have dissected it in a classroom setting made the thought of going it alone seem insurmountable.

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Upon acquiring an ereader, however, the door-stopping tome became more manageable, something I could carry in my purse and read in pieces during lunch breaks at work. With the physical limitations out of the way, I thought maybe I could do it at my own pace, the way I used to read classics pre-English classrooms. I read Books 1 and 2 in between reading other books, in little pockets of time, until suddenly, I wasn’t stringing the project together bit by bit anymore. Instead, I found myself wanting to stay in the book for longer periods of time. I found myself not wanting to break it up with other books or save it for bite-sized moments of my day. Middlemarch became a page-turner without my even realizing it, the way one typically thinks of genre fiction. And by the time I was done with the massive book, I found I wasn’t quite ready to leave the world and its characters behind–luckily, I had Rebecca Mead to ease my transition back into Books That Aren’t Middlemarch.

In case the above didn’t make it clear, I loved Middlemarch. I knew almost nothing about it going in, and that element was kind of fun, so I’m hesitant to try to condense its expansive landscape into a plot summary. Its full title is Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, and that title is both completely apt and completely misleading. Middlemarch is a novel that focuses on a fictional English town in the 1830s. It follows the lives of many characters, tracing the way their stories intersect (as the lives of small-town residents so often do). It captures the personality of such a town, the way its collective consciousness can shape into stifling expectations and esoteric codes of decorum that can seem silly when penetrated by the narrator’s sharp eye. But it’s a novel full of humor and warmth for the people inside of it, and its commentary never comes off as too caustic to be heard, too judgemental to be lived in. Middlemarch shocked me with how funny it is, and it is at its funniest when it reminds me precisely of people in my life, and of home communities I have shared with them.

And that was thing that turned the novel into a page-turner, and into one of my new favorite novels of all time. It is not merely a “study” of provincial life, but the experience of that life itself. The characters in Middlemarch feel so real that you miss them when the book is over. (In fact, they often reminded me so much of people I knew that I missed those people while I was reading the book.) Eliot’s narrator is one of the most insightful and precise I’ve ever encountered: she describes human patterns, interactions, and secret habits with such authenticity that it’s both destabilizing and completely enveloping. Eliot gets you, and she gets your friends, and she gets the weirdness of crashing through life’s uncertainties with nothing but your best intentions and your worst impulses. Reading it is a marvel, and I was so genuinely sad when the last page flickered off my screen.

That’s why I was so happy to have Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch to pick up immediately after, as a way to keep conversing with these characters, to try to stay in their world a bit longer. Mead understands what it means to love this novel: she encountered it as a teenager and has revisited it throughout life. Her own book is a mix of literary criticism of the novel, biography of Eliot, travelogue about visiting the places where Eliot lived and wrote, and memoir about the times when Middlemarch helped illuminate a piece of Mead’s life, or Mead’s life took a turn that helped her appreciate a new element of the novel. For as many modes of nonfiction writing that are present in this book, the premise is fairly simple–a favorite book can be looked at through many lenses (sometimes literally, when one travels to the places the author worked and views manuscripts in museums under gloved hands). This simple premise really resonated with me, though, and definitely makes me want to do more of my own literary-tourism and read more about the lives of my favorite authors. Just as the characters in Middlemarch are often surprisingly intertwined, you never know what sort of connection you might unearth to something that’s felt so familiar for so many years.

If you’re someone who’s intimidated by books that often get characterized as “classics,” especially those the size of bricks, I encourage you to give Middlemarch a try anyway. As you settle into the language, the storytelling, and the web of connection between the narratives, you’ll feel like you’re settling into a real place–and that might be because the book is telling you more about the real community you do live in, and the people inside of it who make up your own web.